By DENISE HERSCHEL
In the Shore area bocce players’ circle, former Neptune City and Asbury Park resident Sal Caliendo is known as “the Bocce Guy.” And he has been for the last 45 years.
He has planned hundreds of tournaments and games for devoted bocce aficionados such as himself. But now Caliendo has decided to retire from the organization of the sport that he loves, passing along the torch to others after more than four decades.
“I think that the time is right and I can enjoy bocce by just playing the games rather than planning them,” he said. “I have been playing bocce since I was 14 so it’s been almost 60 years total. I love to compete and bocce is very competitive when you play people who are on the same calibur as yourself. I like the competition and the camaraderie. And I have made lifelong friends along the way. But now it’s time to step back and just play.”
For Caliendo, planning bocce tournaments has become second nature as he has been organizing and running them for the past 45 years. His history with the sport traces back to 1976 when he started the first bocce league in Asbury Park.
“I had worked for the city of Asbury Park and I was later transferred to special events. My cousin Anthony “Putt Putt” Petillo was the special event coordinator. He asked me to work with him and we would do all the parades, the Christmas show and the Easter show. He said to me why don’t we do bocce on the Asbury Park boardwalk. We can put astro turf or artificial turf there,” he said. “We were able to do it outside at 8th Avenue and Ocean Avenue and were able to get 20 teams in 1976. “
The first league that Caliendo launched was called the Asbury Park Bocce League. The first actual tournament was in 1977 on the south side of Convention Hall on the boardwalk.
“We had two artificial courts. We then moved the next year to the north side of Convention Hall because it was wider and we added two more courts and then the following year we decided to go inside Convention Hall and put everything in the arcade. We also added a fifth and that was a ladies court. We stayed there until 1991 and then in 1992 they had to move out of Convention Hall so they went to Belmar and had it at the Fifth Avenue Pavilion,” he said.
After 1994, the tournaments moved to West End in Long Branch for about 10 years. In 2000 Neptune City Mayor Bob Deeves asked Caliendo to bring the tournaments to Memorial Park in Neptune City.
He said to me, “I know you are the man when it comes to bocce. It lasted for 18 years at Neptune City Day. But the bocce leagues still meet at Memorial Park with the mens’ league, the womens’ league and other fundraisers,” he added.
In 2008, Caliendo founded the Ricky Caliendo Mano-E-Mano Bocce League in honor of his late brother Ricky who died in 2007 from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and was a devoted bocce player.
With all of the planning and organization of bocce tournaments that Caliendo has done throughout the years including the Neptune City Paint the Town Pink tournament, the Neptune City Democrats Club tournament, the Neptune City Republican Club tournament, the St. Claire Home for Children and the Neptune City Board of Recreation tournament, he joked that there are a ‘few things” he will not miss including 4 a.m. phone calls asking if “a game is still on” because of the weather.
“ But I will miss the people who I have come to know and become friends with over the years. I will also miss all the fundraisers we have done for charity tournaments. Planning tournaments is a lot of work but always worth all the time that we put into it,” he said.
Caliendo, who was raised in Asbury Park, retired in 2008 from the Asbury Park Press where he was a warehouse supervisor in charge of shipping and receiving. He now lives with his high school sweetheart and wife Donna in Toms River. His oldest son, Frank Sr. along with Tom Arnone, Ed Zakerowski, Rob Burr and Dan DeSeno will be filling Caliendo’s shoes continuing his bocce legacy.
When asked why he decided that now is the time to step aside, Caliendo said, “I am getting older. I have done this since 1976. It’s time now where I want to just play and enjoy the game. Doing tournaments is a lot of work and it’s time to pass the torch to the next generation.”